Changing face of UAE cricket can bring hope rather than despair after World Cup dream ends

Unprecedented depth of young talent can end reliance on imported players and give UAE a shot at making 2027 tournament

Ali Naseer, centre, has played just six ODIs for the UAE but is already undroppable. Photo: ICC
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The death rites were accompanied by a soundtrack of the Macarena booming out of speakers at a quaint cricket ground between some tennis courts and bowling greens in Bulawayo.

The winning players celebrated as if it was nothing more than routine. The losing ones had long since accepted their fate.

There were some excitable schoolchildren cheering, but that was probably more the fact they had wangled a whole day out of the classroom to watch cricket rather than because their favourite team had won.

Three and a half years after they had started their labyrinthine quest for 50-over World Cup cricket, the UAE’s chances were finally killed off by Scotland on Friday.

For the third time in five days, they had been soundly beaten. A 111-run loss in the 44th match of their bid to win one of two places at the 2023 Cricket World Cup in India.

Honestly? They never stood a chance. If there was an air of ambivalence after the loss to the Scots, it was understandable.

At some point in the time since 2019, maybe they had harboured hopes that the dream might be possible. By the end, that had long given way to realism.

The make up of the squad picked for the Qualifier in Zimbabwe suggested as much. It contains two 17-year-olds, an 18-year-old, a 19-year-old, and two 21-year-olds. Maybe they will be able to compete at the equivalent of this competition in four years’ time. This time around, not remotely.

The losses – by 175 runs, five wickets, and 111 runs – were so insipid, so one sided, they were not even painful. They did not throw a punch, let alone land one.

It followed on from three similar thrashings by the West Indies in a sapping home bilateral series in Sharjah. With the benefit of hindsight, that series did them few favours.

It was arranged with the best of intentions and the Emirates Cricket Board have done well to offer a steady flow of series against Test-playing nations to their players.

On this occasion, though, the timing was off. By the time the national team made it to Zimbabwe, they had forgotten how to win.

Mudassar Nazar, the interim coach holding the fort before the appointment of a full-time replacement for Robin Singh, said the players are “mentally fatigued and tired”.

“It has been a long season for them, and a lot of the senior players are well into their 30s,” Nazar said. “They are still trying their best, but sometimes their body and mind don’t oblige.

“Playing against West Indies was probably a mistake, but you can’t say no to a chance like that. An international team [of West Indies’ standing] coming to UAE is a big event. They felt compelled to play that.”

Who knows how much those thirtysomethings like Rohan Mustafa, Rameez Shahzad, Junaid Siddique and Zahoor Khan have left to give UAE cricket? Hopefully plenty.

The only thing that is certain is there is now a pool of young talent of unprecedented depth. Harnessed correctly, it should transform UAE cricket, and not just the results of the national team.

The process is well under way already. Take the case of the magnificent Vriitya Aravind. He missed a psychology exam at school to make his international debut on the first day of the Cricket World Cup League 2 series back in 2019.

In the time since he has played 52 ODIs and become a player of great substance. Arguably even the key player in the side.

When he was bowled out first ball against Scotland, an Irish supporter said to a group of four Scots fans just beyond the boundary: “That’s the big wicket. That kid can really play.”

It was coincidental Aravind had fallen for a golden duck on Friday. He edged the very first ball he faced in international cricket, back in 2019, to slip. It went straight through, and he survived.

Might he have lost his place in the side and been forgotten about had it gone to hand? Probably not, but either way his career shows the benefit of sticking with young talent.

In his first 12 ODIs, he averaged 23.91. In the 12 he played leading up to the Scotland game, he averaged 43.63 – and that included three games against West Indies and one against Sri Lanka.

Aravind gets a tattoo every time he makes a hundred for the national team. By the time his career finishes he might be covered in more ink than Darth Maul. He has only just turned 21 and should be the linchpin of the side for years to come.

There are other enviable talents already involved, too. Aayan Khan is the side’s go-to bowler, despite being just 17. He is a prodigy, who also bats with the canniness of a veteran.

Ali Naseer, 19, has played just six ODIs but is already undroppable. An all-rounder who has done a passable impersonation of his hero, Ben Stokes, in the way he has played international cricket so far.

Next on the production line is likely to be Ethan D’Souza, a 17-year-old batter from Abu Dhabi who will now get his chance to stake a claim for the No 4 position in the batting line up.

Having played just a lone ODI to date, against West Indies, he will be pitched into the XI for their remaining games in Zimbabwe, against Ireland on Tuesday then in the consolation playoffs that follow. There is a reason there are big hopes invested in him.

That quartet will be 25, 21, 23 and 21 by the time the next World Cup Qualifier happens. Aravind might be closing in on 100 ODI caps to his name by then, and the rest could be seasoned internationals, too.

All of which can only be a good thing for UAE cricket and their hopes of making it back to an ODI World Cup.

“I have no doubts [they will be able to compete better in four years’ time] and the good thing about it is they will all be home grown players,” Nazar said.

“They won’t be looking to India and Pakistan to supplement [the side]. Some of the young boys, especially the Under 16s, will blow your mind with how good they are.

“They are going to come through. But there is a small window there. Will they be ready when these seniors move on? Maybe not. But in a couple of years’ time, I think this team is going to be formidable.”

Updated: June 24, 2023, 10:12 AM